Fri Aug 30, Chop Suey, $6.
Just half a dozen shows into Plan B's existence, and James van Leuven* is already playing down his renowned stage moves.
"I will breakdance if I feel like doin' it," he laughs. "That was never really something I was planning on being a staple of my show, and I'm still saying it's not, but yeah, I might get down on the floor."
Seattle music fans are used to seeing van Leuven's limbs flailing around, though until now it's only been as the drummer for the post-punk trio Automaton. But with Plan B, his new one-man project, the talented multi-instrumentalist with a taste for hiphop (and the occasional windmill) dives headfirst into beat-driven, quasi-electronic music.
"I wanted to do something based on why I play music, which is that I really get into the trance of a beat," says van Leuven. "I've been messing around with drum machines for years, and I'm always just drumming by myself, so I wanted to do something just centered around the beat and not necessarily in a rock-song format. And I'd been thinking about it for so long that I finally decided I was ready, and I just did it."
Long accustomed to the breakneck pace of pro studio recording ("Three days? Eight songs? Go!"), van Leuven submerged into his basement at the end of last winter, coming up with a dozen tracks--eight of which (if you include the hidden song) found their way into Plan B's debut, Like a Ship Sailing (Luckyhorse Industries). The album's opener, "Rich and Greedy"--featuring a crisp loop that commingles with desert-dwelling, reverbed guitar, sampled voices, and eerie keyboard embellishments--establishes a pensive mood that resurfaces throughout the record. Taut beats and dark atmospherics drive the menacing "Plans for Tomorrow," while "Mad Bombers" is built on an unsettling ambient soundscape that floats under a concerned female voice warning, "Howard just said he was going to blow his brains out next Tuesday...."
The disc is not an entirely melancholic affair, however. "Come Out Strong," perhaps the disc's most resplendent track, sports a killer breakbeat and muted trumpet passages that summon the ghost of Miles Davis. The song is also a prime illustration of how van Leuven's vision mutated throughout the recording process.
"When I wrote it, it felt like a straight hiphop track, but when I started laying down other things, it was amazing how it transformed where the song was going," he explains. "Everything started from a beat. I would just play and play until I was as relaxed as possible and the beats came out well, and then I made loops out of that and started building from there with bass lines, keyboard lines, and melodies. I never really knew at the start how they would turn out.
"The whole record ended up being a lot more mellow than I thought it would be," he reflects. "My first intention was to make stuff for people to get down to--make people move instead of just sittin' around. But I think my indie-rock roots just got in there--plus feeling a bit blue at the time and being alone down there in the dead of winter--so it ended up becoming this introspective, downtempo kind of thing."
Nonetheless, Plan B's live performances mark van Leuven's return from exile in unpredictable and highly collaborative fashion. Aside from spontaneous bursts of breakdancing, a Plan B show is known to include a stand-up bass player, trumpeter, and cellist accompanying van Leuven, who mans a laptop packed with all of his tracks and samples. The music is enhanced even further by unique visuals--an array of films and lighting effects presented in an especially striking way against a piece of scrim.
"I was at this amazing club in Paris that's actually inside the hull of a tugboat, and there were all these Japanese DJs who had a floating screen hanging on each side of them that made this 3-D effect. It was really awesome-looking, so it inspired me to do my [own] scrim idea."
Van Leuven is fortunate to have dedicated friends who currently contribute 2-D animations and video art to the live show, and he's still reaching out to local visual artists who might want to share in the Plan B experience.
"I'm actually really interested in having a crew of people who are excited about doing the video portion of it. Maybe they've been doing something by themselves and they want to present it for five minutes. If I had five or six different people like that, I could have them come out and do one show or something--it would be cool. If someone comes with some harsh, industrial-type thing, obviously I'm not gonna be into it, but if I am into it and it goes with the music, I'd love to give them the opportunity to show it off."
Ultimately, though, the spotlight is squarely on van Leuven, and he's as eager to offer something new and compelling to the denizens of a decidedly rock town as he is to explore a different musical path for himself.
"I'm used to being behind a drum set on the back of a stage, so this whole project has been a lot of risk-taking for me," he says. "It's all my music, it's all me. Like, 'Okay, this is what I do.' I don't have any bandmates where I can go, 'This is what we do,' and so in a way it's a little nerve-wracking to present it. But whatever--I'm really proud of it."
*Editorial disclaimer: James van Leuven is on staff at The Stranger, but he works in the tech department, so really, the editorial department only sees him when its computers crash, and they really only crash when we spill Big Gulps all over our keyboards. And Michael Goldberg doesn't even work in The Stranger offices, nor does he drink Big Gulps, so it's very unlikely that van Leuven and Goldberg have had much of a chance to conspire against Seattle's music community for any length of time.